We sometimes say, “I’m going to do some thinking” as though cognition were a kind of action. At other times we say, “an idea struck me” as though thinking were something that breaks in on us from outside ourselves.
There’s reality in both perspectives, but it’s useful to distinguish them.
When you’re thinking purposefully, the process is highly conscious. You are fully aware of what you are thinking about and the mental tools you are using. You set objectives, assemble data, pose questions, wrestle with possibilities and try to arrive at a solution.
Then there’s the “aha” moment that hits you when you’re taking a shower or feeding the dog or trying to fall asleep. It can feel like a completely arbitrary intrusion on an unrelated stream of internal chatter. Often the best ideas crash-land in this way. In Zoom Thinking we refer to such moments as the “creative ambush.”
Although these two modes of thought are quite different, they are not mutually exclusive. Deliberative thinking of the most systematic kind can actually encourage a creative ambush, if you set it up correctly.
It’s best to assume that parallel to your conscious deliberations, there’s always a stream of subconscious mental activity going on. In the literature of cognitive science, you’ll find theories of how this activity occurs, and we’ll look at those in future posts. From a practical point of view, it’s best to view the subconscious as a secret think tank, working away in the basement of the mind on whatever you are consciously dealing with. Every now and then, this think tank will pass its results up to you.
How to Get the Most from Your Inner Think Tank
There is an art to making the best use of your subconscious think tank. It needs briefing, just like any team of helpers.
You could picture the process like this. On the top floor, in the conscious mind, we assemble information, goals, challenges, questions and ideas. We put them in a form that’s easy to grasp, and we send our brief down to the basement. Then we wait for a report. It may come back instantly, or days later, depending on the complexity of the problem.
The key word here is “wait.” You can’t force the hidden mind to perform on your schedule. You have to allow it to deliver the goods when it’s ready to. If you’re willing to exercise a little patience, the results of your thinking can be far more fertile.
Enrolling the hidden mind in your thinking process subtly redefines the goal of deliberative thinking. We tend to assume that our most analytical, evidenced-based cogitations will lead step by step to the best available conclusion, as though on a straight path from goal to outcome. But this picture excludes the creative ambush.